Saturday, 12 April 2014
An iron gong sounded, setting up a wave of expectation in the crowd. Everyone looked in the direction of the egwugwu house. Gome, gome, geom, gome went the gong, and a powerful flute blew a high-pitched blast. Then came the voices of the egwugwu, guttural and awesome. The wave struck the women and children and there was a backward stampede. But it was momentary. They were already far enough where they stood and there was room for running away if any of the egwugwu should go towards them.
The drum sounded again and the flute blew. The egwugwu house was now a pandemonium of quavering voices: Aru oyim de de de de dei! filled the air as the spirits of the ancestors, just emerged from the earth, greeted themselves in their esoteric language. The egwugwu house into which they emerged faced the forest, away from the crowd, who only saw its back with the many-coloured patterns and drawings done by specially chosen women at regular intervals. These women never saw the inside of the hut. No woman ever did. They scrubbed and painted the outside walls under the supervision of men. If they imagined what was inside, they kept their imagination to themselves. No woman ever asked questions about the most powerful and the most secret cult in the clan.
Aru oyim de de de dei! flew around the dark, closed hut like tongues of fire. The ancestral spirits of the clan were abroad. The metal gong beat continuously now and the flute, shrill and powerful, floated on the chaos.
And then the egwugwu appeared. The women and children sent up a great shout and took to their heels. It was instinctive. A women fled as soon as an egwugwu came in sight. And when, as on that day, nine of the greatest masked spirits in the clan came out together it was a terrifying spectacle. Even Mgbafo took to her heels and had to be restrained by her brothers.
Each of the nine egwugwu represented a village of the clan. Their leader was called Evil Forest. Smoke poured out of his head.
The nine villages of Umuofia had grown out of the nine sons of the first father of the clan. Evil Forest represented the village of Umeru, or the children of Eru, who was the eldest of the nine sons.
‘Umufia kwenu!’ shouted the leader egwugwu, pushing the air with his raffia arms. The elders of the clan replied, ‘Yao!’
Evil Forest then thrust the pointed end of his rattling staff into the earth. And it began to shake and rattle, like something agitating with metallic life. He took the first of the empty stools and the eight other egwugwu began to sit in order of seniority after him.
Okonkwo’s wives, and perhaps other women as well, might have notices that the second egwugwu had the springy walk of Okonkwo. And they might also have noticed that Okonkwo was not among the titled men and elders who sat behind the row of egwugwu. But if they thought these things they kept them within themselves. The egwugwu with the springy walk was one of the dead fathers of the clan. He looked terrible with the smoked raffia body, a huge wooden face painted white except for the round hollow eyes and the charred teeth that were as big as a mans fingers. On his head were two powerful horns.
When all the egwugwu had sat down and the sound of the many tiny bells and rattles on their bodies had subsided, Evil Forest addressed the two groups of people facing them.
‘Uzowulu’s body, I salute you,’ he said. Spirits always addressed humans as ‘bodies’. Uzowulu bent down and touched the earth with his right hand as a sign of submission.
‘Our father, my hand has touched the ground,’ he said.
‘Uzowulu’s body do you know me?’ asked the spirit.
‘How can I know you, father? You are beyond our knowledge.’
Evil Forest then turned to the other group and addressed the eldest of the three brothers.
‘The body of Odukwe, I greet you,’ he said, and Odukwe bent down and touched the earth. The hearing then began.
From Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe